“Lob-what?!” Preston bellowed. “-ster club?” I ventured. I was backstage before my first Lobster Club performance and was unfamiliar with the club cheer. Everyone else had been through this before, but the response was far from unified.
“Lobster Club!” a few shouted enthusiastically, but others took the opportunity to propose new cheers or complain about the old one. The resulting muddled cacophony was a far cry from the booming, disciplined chants I hear at most shows. But somehow it felt right: I was ready to go.
Lobster Club, for the uninitiated, is Princeton’s only no-audition improvisational comedy troupe. It is, in turn, a wing of ¿Shruggers?, a no-audition “performing arts coalition” that also includes Orpheus (a theater group), Beatnik (a dance group), and, most recently, Acapellago (an a cappella group, in case you couldn’t tell). But improv is where ¿Shruggers? has its roots.
¿Shruggers? would never have existed without rejection. Then-freshman Nicky Robinson was called back for auditions to both Fuzzy Dice and Quipfire, but ultimately turned away. Not willing to let his college improv career end before it even began, he sent out an e-mail to his fellow spurned comics asking if anyone wanted to start a new group. A few said yes, and ¿Shruggers? was born. (This was before the group expanded into other arts, so “¿Shruggers?” simply referred to the comedy troupe—“Lobster Club” was at this point no more than a fake sign to ensnare crustaceophilic pre-frosh at the activities fair.) The group was wildly disorganized and its size fluctuated dangerously. Yet somehow, almost exactly a year ago, they landed a gig at the Princeton Chabad Purim party in Terrace. They had one rule going in: no Hitler jokes.
They broke their only rule, of course (one scene involved Hitler overseeing the construction of the Berlin Wall, which is more of an offense to chronology than anything else). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the show was a flop. But when you ask them about it today, it sure sounds like they had a ball. The club existed at a fairly inconspicuous level for the rest of the semester—founding member and artistic director Preston Kemeny describes it as “just our friends dicking around in the yoga room once a week.”
Then, last fall, people started to show up. Not a lot, but enough that the founders were forced to reevaluate the purpose of the group. The constitution was rewritten, and ¿Shruggers? became an umbrella organization, with the improv club—now officially known as Lobster Club—being the largest offshoot but no longer the sole one, joined by Beatnik and Orpheus. They had created a supply of something for which no one knew there had been a demand.
Much of Princeton culture revolves around competition and exclusivity, as may have been mentioned once or twice in the Prince. From the admissions process to the eating clubs to—you’ve heard it all before. Whether this is harmful or even entirely true is a subject I’ll leave for someone else to untangle.
Either way, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of Princeton students have at least one or two skills, academic or otherwise, at which they are extremely talented. More often than not, they tend to pursue these things. So when, say, Quipfire gets over a hundred auditions for only a couple spots, only the best of the best are going to get a shot. Not unfairly, the “no experience necessary!” disclaimers on audition fliers have become something of a punch line. Of course there are exceptions—some student groups are less selective than others, and there are always a fair number of success stories among the inexperienced. But the odds are stacked against you. Not only that, but the whole auditions process seems daunting if you’ve never been through it before, and I suspect fear of failure keeps many of us away.
I should note that this is true in the classroom as well. Introductory science courses at Princeton and other top-tier universities are notorious for being intentionally difficult. This seems plausible to me—my aggressively unsuccessful freshman fall in MAT 215 and PHY 105 almost dissuaded me from pursuing the sciences. But I stuck with it, and here I am a sophomore about to declare as an astrophysics major. I don’t present this as a parable about how hard work and perseverance paid off—I still consistently do way better in my non-physics classes than in my departmentals. All I’m saying is that, despite this fine institution’s best attempts to keep me out, I have continued to pursue something I am bad at. Which perhaps can help explain why, a year removed from my ill-fated Quipfire and Fuzzy Dice auditions, I found myself considering the Lobster Club.
One October night in Whitman’s Community Hall, my friend Byrd told me about Lobster Club, and suggested I try going to a practice. So the next Wednesday evening, feeling deflated after an unfortunate math midterm, I wandered into Wilson dance studio, a little nervous but ready to try some improv. As it turned out, due to midterms week, none of the officers showed up and the rehearsal was a structure-less, haphazard mess. An Oxford study-abroad student named Jamie took charge, and he instantly asserted himself as one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. His natural wit was only augmented by his enthusiasm and accent.
We ended up spending most of the time on a game called “Freeze.” In Freeze, two actors start a scene about anything, and at any point someone watching can yell “Freeze!” and replace whichever of the two original performers most recently spoke. The new actor must begin the new scene with the last line of dialogue from the previous scene. (For example, “I want that ass” might be the last line of a scene at a nightclub and the first line of a scene at a donkey breeder’s.) I was content to watch at first until Jamie physically pushed me in. Once I got started it was hard to stop.
Unfortunately, I was busy the next few Wednesdays and I didn’t come back for a while. But a week or two before winter break I attended their free show in the Wilson Black Box, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. They may not have had Quipfire’s polish, but the atmosphere was intimate and informal. It felt exactly like a bunch of friends dicking around in the yoga room, and I found it rather refreshing.
The following Wednesday, I once again showed up to rehearsal. This time at least the officers were there, but they had just had their performance, it was almost winter break, Jamie was about to return to England, and nobody was taking it seriously. With the exception of one brief pause to officially elect Byrd as the club’s Social Viceroy, this night was the Jamie show. He wormed his way into every game, and during Freeze he never went more than a few seconds on the sideline—he was relishing his last practice too much to spend it idly. I didn’t mind one bit. Although I never got to know him, I would miss his lively presence in the weeks to come.
During the first week of reading period I attended a workshop geared towards new recruits. There were six or seven first-timers, and the experienced folk broke us off into groups to learn and practice various improv games. Compared to my past Lobster Club experiences, this workshop was practically a military drill session—they had a schedule and everything! While a part of me missed the free-flowing chaos of before, I was impressed to see how well-put together the club really was.
This night also marked my first time playing “Classic Cast,” which quickly became my favorite game. In Classic Cast, the audience supplies a name, an occupation, and some third bit of biographical information which one actor adopts as his own. The other three performers then come up with their own names, occupations, and backstories, and introduce themselves to the audience before starting the scene. I am always fascinated by the way these characters develop. I once started as an arrogant robot created to replace the human employees of a dairy farm and ended up trying to learn emotion from a laid-off milkmaid (who was also—plot twist!—a robot). Another time I began as a nervous PTA member concerned about the influence of hip hop culture on his children’s schools and by the end I had crashed a local rap battle and even performed a pro-education freestyle.
To me, this game encapsulates all of the best parts of improvisation. There is the intrigue of simply exploring different characters and seeing how they interact, but there is also the long-term goal of creating a cohesive series of events. The challenge is to keep the scene alive, leave it somewhere to build towards, set up situations where funny things might happen. This requires trust: it doesn’t matter how silly or crazy you make your character if there’s no way to mix him in with the rest of the cast. Taking all the jokes and glory for yourself can ruin the overall effect of the scene, and thus learning to improv successfully is a lesson in teamwork, patience, and humility. This doesn’t always come naturally, but it’s surprisingly rewarding.
When we were finished, everyone was invited to a “family dinner.” This would become a running theme: Preston’s e-mails address us as “Family,” and when two of the officers got into an argument at practice one night, they sent us a message afterward explaining that “Sometime [sic] a mommy and a daddy fight with one another over silly little things like rehearsals.” The message was clear. There may have been a show coming up, but the quality of that show wasn’t important. What mattered, to put it schmaltzily, was that we were doing it together.
My whopping three rehearsals somehow qualified me to be in their February performance (“Lobster Club presents: Improv Tragedy”), so I spent much of the first week of classes practicing improv in the Whitman Theater with ten other members (all of whom had appeared in the December show). I’m going to be honest; at first I didn’t want people I knew to attend. I did ask some my closest friends to show up, because they were used to watching me try and fail to be funny. But I felt guilty and embarrassed about the prospect of other people forking over $3 just to watch little old me make dumb jokes. While our rehearsals certainly weren’t train wrecks, I recognized a definite potential for disaster.
Then, suddenly, I didn’t care. The night of the show had arrived and I was pumped. In my giddy excitement I posted a Facebook status telling everyone I knew to come. I was so psyched for this.
Improv Tragedy was formatted as a competition—we split into two teams, my beloved “Crabdominal Mussels” and the rival “All Brains, No Prawn.” All Brains had one more player than we did, so at each performance one of them would be the referee. (Not-so-coincidentally, the Crabdominal Mussels were robbed of the victory and the coveted Lobster Cup both nights.)
The ref’s job is to solicit suggestions from the audience, control the timing and flow of each game, and determine the winner based on the measure of applause after each round. He uses this and a hefty dose of whimsy to decide how many points each team has earned. The arbitrariness of the results brings back pleasant memories of the college admissions process.
Several of my friends did come, and they claim to have loved it. One even attended both our Thursday and Friday shows. Something about our lack of prestige changes the atmosphere. We weren’t doing improv because we were good at it (although I do think the majority of Lobster Club is actually quite talented). We were doing it because it was a fun thing to do, so goddammit, a good time was going to be had by all.
I haven’t been a particularly good Shrugger since then. I skipped several rehearsals after the show because I was too busy and then I got sick, and I missed out on a chance to perform at “This is Princeton,” a Hurricane Sandy benefit. But I did get picked up.
Lobster Club’s officers recently made the convenient decision that pick-ups would occur after appearing in a show. So one Thursday night a bunch of yelling comedians showed up at my room with ample amounts of shaving cream and enthusiasm to match. We ran around to pick up the other members (this was the inaugural pick-ups, so there were two shows worth of performers to visit) and went back to Preston’s room. We beat up on a lobster piñata, watched some Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and played some improv games of our own. Some got drunk; most didn’t. It was low-key and relaxed; no one was trying to impress. It was hard to get too worked up about being picked up for something I didn’t even have to audition for, although I was flattered and honored to find myself elected as club historiographer/cartographer.
Don’t get me wrong: there is a lot to be said for trying to perform at a high level. There is an immense satisfaction that comes about when a deep investment of time, effort, and skill pays off. I would even argue that we have a moral obligation to utilize our talents in the best possible way—a large part of my personal code of ethics revolves around Spider-Man’s mantra, “With great power comes great responsibility.” However, while there are certainly members of Lobster Club who do put in a lot of work, and it does shine through, I am not one of those members. And I’m okay with that.
There is a lot of pressure on Princeton students to perform; we are talented and accustomed to success, and it is difficult for us to be satisfied with anything less than the best. I’m still not completely comfortable with the fact that, while I’ve learned a lot of really fascinating stuff in physics, and I’m glad I’m doing it, I am dedicating so much of my life to a subject at which—relative to my peers here—I do not excel. But I’m totally cool with spending a couple hours per week as a mediocre improv comedian.
During that time, I am not working towards any personal goal, nor does my level of performance matter. I put my dreams of changing the world on hold and content myself to just act stupid and have fun. It’s keeps me grounded; it’s a gentle but at times necessary reminder that, at the end of the day, I’m only human.
“Lob-what?!” Preston bellowed again. This time I had just been picked up, and we were running across campus covered in drizzle and shaving cream. He got the usual mixed reaction. For my part, I think it’s a stupid cheer, but for once I let myself get swept up in the moment—well, almost. I let out a whoop, but tempered it with a shrug.